Our newest blogger, Radagast, begins his commentary at Beyond the GOP with a criticism of Ron Paul. He brings up an important point when he writes:
[Ron Paul] is neither an ideologue nor a narcissist . . . but his uncompromising commitment to his principles is politically objectionable in my view. . . The “games” of American politics are utterly corrupt and broken, but the game is the game. It is not a concession to choose to play it when you know you can’t win everything. Compromise is not a dirty word – it is a necessary element of a just and enduring order.
First of all, one might reasonably ask: if the game really is “utterly corrupt and broken,” why continue to play it?
But the crux of Radagast’s argument comes later. He asserts that Ron Paul wrongly sticks to “moralism in an imperfect world.” Rather than doing that, Paul supposedly needs to learn from Machiavelli and Bill Clinton—he needs to learn to get his hands dirty to achieve what he wants. According to Radagast, a successful politician needs to adopt morally grayer means to achieve his (good) ends.
The issue of reconciling political means to ends is one that constantly reoccurs, especially in marginalized and relatively powerless groups like our own.
Yet, as in much else, I think the best discussion of the issue comes from Murray Rothbard, who argued that there really is no conflict between the two. Every end requires means to attain it, so the means can only be justified to the extent that the end can—and if an end can’t be justified, then no means can either. Conversely, if a particular means is bad, that can only mean that it is inconsistent with a more important end.
To bring this down to earth: I see nothing wrong with Ron Paul voting for a 1% tax cut, even though I would prefer a 50% or—best of all—100% decrease. My end is to roll back the government until it can drown in a teacup—the quicker we can accomplish that the better. Still, the 1% decrease might just be the best we can get at the moment, so it would be pointless to hold out for more if more were not forthcoming. Here there is no conflict between means and ends; the means are less than we might like, but they are still consistent with the ultimate goal.
On the other hand, Paul would be unjustified if, for instance, he threatened to murder the congressional Democrats unless they agreed to a bigger tax decrease. Murder is even worse than taxes, so by threatening it Paul would be acting inconsistently with another important end. He would also be unjustified if he promised his support for, say, ethanol subsidies in return for tax cuts—the classic “one step forward, two steps back.”
But just because sometimes a half-way measure is the best we can realistically accomplish, that doesn’t mean that compromise is somehow a good in itself. As G.K. Chesterton memorably put it, “Compromise used to mean that half a loaf was better than no bread. Among modern statesmen it really seems to mean that half a loaf is better than a whole loaf.”
It appears that many of Ron Paul’s critics take the “modern statesman’s” approach and value compromise for its own sake. But if they do, then they have little to worry about. Most everyone who doesn’t write for Mother Jones understands that the Republicans are nowhere near adopting laissez-faire purism. Those of us who can remember back to last month might recall how the Republicans ultimately capitulated to tax increases and then agreed to a truce over the debt ceiling. Those of us who follow politics a little more closely might also remember the Ron Paul-endorsed Kerry Bentivolio call himself “not really a Ron Paul person” after he was elected. Or the supposedly “libertarian” senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee’s attacks on Chuck Hagel’s non-aggressive foreign policy during the recent confirmation hearings. And of course, Rand Paul’s own deviations from his father are well-documented. If anything, the “uncompromising” politicians quickly start compromising once their careers begin. Despite what Radagast might fear, Machiavelli is alive and well in Washington.
By contrast, Ron Paul is so popular because he stands out from the crowd. He doesn’t compromise, while everyone else does. Does anyone really believe that he would have made more of an impact if he conducted his career like Lamar Alexander? Sure, he hasn’t had many political successes, but he did open up a whole generation to libertarian ideals. That’s a huge accomplishment. As for Lamar Alexander . . . well, you can look him up on Wikipedia.
Nevertheless, Radagast is correct that the Right needs to do more than just nay-saying. Ron Paul has done great things, but we need something more if we eventually want to win.
The problem is that most of the solutions offered essentially constitute a surrender of principle—they are inconsistent with ultimate goals. We hear incessantly, for instance, that Republicans need to make their peace with the welfare state or accept mass immigration. But if that’s what it takes to win, then what’s the point of winning? Just being able to say “We won” is small consolation for embracing and ratifying destructive political principles. To take a less dramatic example being willing to “vote trade”—swapping a vote for higher taxes in exchange for spending cuts—is almost as bad. If our ultimate goal is rolling back the government, it is hard to come up with a non-sophistical justification for how higher taxes will accomplish that.
So what then to do?
I’m not exactly sure. But I do see some promising options. For instance, I have written here before about “bleeding heart libertarianism” and about the states’ rights/Tenth Amendment movement. Though the two movements seem very different, they are both strategic, political means of advancing good ends without violating higher principles. They’re both about making libertarian or conservative ideas appeal to a wider array of normal, working people. As such, I think they offer much more promising avenues for change than some fuzzy “compromise.”
They are both incomplete and wouldn’t lead to any kind of victory overnight. But they are still helpful in the long-run by re-branding libertarian goals while staying true to libertarianism. I’m sure there are many other options too. Off the top of my head, opposition to war and support for breaking the state’s intellectual property grants are two other issues where pure libertarianism could be widely popular.
Above all, we just can’t lose sight of principle. I fear that Radagast’s proscriptions would do just that. They would turn the Republican Party into a party of Lamar Alexanders, not a party willing to fight for the principles we share.